LANSING – If not for the pictures of her children placed before her, Ivory Whitby would have been alone at the long wooden table in a state hearing room Thursday.
Whitby and the photos faced House Oversight Committee members questioning leaders of the state’s child welfare system, which has been under scrutiny for more than a decade and the subject of a scathing September audit.
She was nervous, she told the commission as she steadied the frames, because it was difficult to talk about Children's Protective Services workers taking her first child into state custody when she was 16. Whitby contended her case was rushed and mismanaged, ending with her losing custody despite taking parenting classes, passing drug tests, finding work and a home.
The state audit that detailed dozens of problems with the Department of Health and Human Services’ child welfare system is not just a matter of violations of protocol, Whitby reminded the commissioners.
“All I’m saying is, in these numbers, in all their legal mumbo-jumbo, there are people’s lives that they are screwing up,” she said. “And they care not.”
Whitby’s were the final words of a committee hearing where Department of Health and Human Services officials described the measures they are developing to fix the problems laid out in the audit, which Chair Rep. Joseph Graves, R-Argentine Township previously said could have put Michigan children in dangerous situations.
During their testimony, DHHS officials described new programs they said will make casework more efficient, help workers document their progress and retain or attract more staff – all strategies to address the systemic issues laid out in the audit.
The department is developing a computer-based checklist workers will use to track the progress of their cases, said Stacie Bladen, deputy director of field operations for MDHHS Children’s Services Agency.
The checklist will help ensure case workers follow department protocol and document their work, she said. It also will allow supervisors to keep tabs their progress.
Bladen and other officials testified about other initiatives launched in the last year, including:
- Reviewing assessments that were previously done inaccurately, fixing errors that left people wrongly added to or omitted from the central registryof identified child abusers.
- Ensuring staff know they can request to extend cases beyond 30-day deadlines. Bladen acknowledged that staff may have closed cases prematurely in order to meet deadlines.
- Starting to interview outgoing workers to identify issues with the workplace.
- Launching an initiative to deal with CPS worker stress.
- Improving the internal database of child abusers.
- Requiring two supervisors approve requests to close investigations early.
- Improving training for new workers.
- Developing a new quality improvement program targeting issues identified in the audit.
Michigan's child welfare program has been under fire since 2005, when Children's Rights, a New York advocacy group, sued the state following a series of child deaths. The case was settled in 2008, and the state program is still under federal court oversight.
A Lansing State Journal investigation published in May found more children dying from abuse and neglect than in 2008, despite hundreds of millions in additional spending and nearly doubling the child welfare staff.
The September audit identified further issues with the program.
The committee will continue to keep track of DHHS’ fixes to its CPS program, Graves said. So will auditors – Auditor General Doug Ringler gave the department 60 days from the Sept. 6 audit to submit its plan for fixing the problems auditors uncovered.
Auditors are working on another investigation, of CPS caseloads, to be released early next year.
During the hearing, some commissioners said limited money and manpower could be a hindrance to fixing CPS, especially as the number of child welfare complaints directed to CPS has increased.
DHHS officials plan to present the legislature with a request for a "supplemental" cash infusion by the end of the year, spokesman Bob Wheaton said.
“We’re working on putting together a proposal as far as how many new positions would be needed or what the costs would be," he said.
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